Britain's Chief Justice Promises No More Wigs, Gowns, or Cobwebs
LONDON — ENGLAND is to have a new lord chief justice who is determined to push a brisk new broom through the cobwebbed corridors of the country's ancient legal system.
Within two hours of being appointed lord chief justice Feb. 25, Sir Peter Taylor (to be called Lord Taylor next month) took the unprecedented step for a senior judge of calling a news conference. He pledged to make the system more "user-friendly" and spoke of introducing important changes in the way England's centuries-old system of law is run.
The court has become heavily discredited during the 12-year reign of the retiring chief justice, Lord Lane, with a series of its judgments overturned. A Royal Commission on Criminal Justice is currently sitting and is expected to support the new lord chief justice in his call for a fairer, more-open legal system.
Taylor's zeal for reform even extends to what judges should wear. If he has his way, their curling wigs and multicolored gowns will be discarded in favor of sober business suits. He wants to end judgessplendid isolation" from the community.
In the last few years the Appeal Court in London has had to accept that police submitted fabricated evidence in order to obtain convictions. Such evidence was used to convict six Irish people for a lethal bomb attack in Birmingham, and four others for a similar outrage in Guildford, near London. In the Birmingham and Guildford cases modern forensic testing eventually proved that police had altered written statements made by the accused.
Earlier Lord Lane presided over appeals of the sentences, but consistently upheld the original convictions. Last year, after the Appeal Court finally freed the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, 140 members of Parliament signed a motion calling on Lord Lane to resign.
Anthony Scrivener, former chairman of the British Bar Council, said the departure of the controversial Lord Lane had been "greeted with an enormous sigh of relief" by the legal profession.
Lord Lane's defenders say his dinosaur image is unfair. "This is the man who made legal history last year by ruling that a husband could be found guilty of raping his wife. He is a very good lawyer, but he is withdrawn and aloof, and these days people don't like that," said a barrister who often has appeared before Lord Lane.
Marcel Berlins, a respected legal analyst, described Taylor as a man who could be expected to work hard to bring the legal system into the modern era. He had openly criticized judges for their "ivory tower attitudes."
In an interview 18 months ago Taylor said judges "could disarm a good deal of public misunderstanding if we stopped wearing wigs and gowns in court." Within the legal profession he is expected to call for judges to abandon their fancy traditional clothes.
The new lord chief justice told a news conference Feb. 25 that he favored changes in the way the Appeal Court works.
When a criminal appeal is heard, the judges confine themselves to reviewing evidence presented during the original court case. Taylor wants to change that. One possibility, he said, was "to give the Appeal Court investigative powers" so that dubious evidence could be looked at and fresh expertise brought to bear. Another approach would be the appointment of an independent body to investigate cases.
Some parts of the legal system, however, are unlikely to change under Taylor. He said he was determined to retain the jury system and was against American-style televising of trials.
Taylor has sat on the Appeal Court for only four years. Three years ago he achieved great public prominence when he led an inquiry into a disaster at a soccer stadium in which dozens of spectators were trampled to death. His report recommended all-seater stadiums, and this was later enforced by the government.
Taylor's appointment as England's top judge (he ranks after the lord chancellor, who is a member of the government) was described by Gareth Williams, new chairman of the Bar Council, as "absolutely first class."
Michael Mansfield, QC, who successfully fought the final appeal of the Birmingham Six, said Taylor would bring "much-needed change." He added: "The system has been going wrong for a long time." Lord Lane had chosen "not to speak out on vital issues such as uncorroborated confessions and police corruption," Mr. Mansfield said.
The judiciary was largely to blame for the current crisis because its members had been "unwilling to recognize the failings and shortcomings of the system," he said.